Grey's Anatomy

Among marketers and casual reviewers of films, there is a long-standing assumption that when heterosexual pairs go to the movies, female viewers will watch "male" films, but that men have to be really persuaded to watch "female" films. Thus the term "chick flick" has become a descriptive label that doesn't really say anything about content -- it's more about presumed audience behavior.

Several years ago, Janice Radway's research in Reading the Romance suggested that purchasers and readers of mass-market romance novels would frequently choose them based on aspects of setting -- one might be a reader who liked historical romances, another wants novels set in Paris or New York. Because the genre offers fairly conventional characterization and plot structures, the background details were actually very important to many consumers.

I've been thinking about both of these things in relation to the new medical drama show on ABC, Grey's Anatomy, which focuses on a group of young MDs doing a surgical internship in Seattle. There's a long history of television shows that select a professional situation -- medicine, law, police work -- to provide the backdrop to the interpersonal relations among the characters. The advantage of these professions is that each of them provides a daily supply of new patients/clients/criminals and new ethical or moral situations with which the protagonists have to come to terms. I suspect that for viewers, these backgrounds operate in much the same way as the settings of romance novels -- one might prefer crime drama, medical drama, or law drama, even though the emotional or ethical content boils down to much the same thing. It's just dressed up a little differently.

What's distinctive about this show is that there are three women in the central group of interns, and they work under a female resident. At least one gossip columnist has termed it "FelicMD" to point out its affiliations to so-called "chick TV." And yes, there's plenty of sexual tension between Meredith Grey and one of the attending physicians, who she slept with in a one-night stand before starting work at the hospital. But the fact that we can have a girly doctor show is a great cultural place to be in, no? It's not a perfect show, but it does try to offer a range of both female and male characters, which is pretty unusual in the professional soap/drama shows.

What's also interesting to me -- this show comes on after Desperate Housewives, which is how I wound up watching it. And both of them use a voice-over narrator who provides a theme or motif at the opening and some kind of concluding remark. In DH, it's the neighbor whose suicide started the show, and in GA it's Meredith Grey, the main protagonist. So these shows seem to me to be reaching for a kind of literary feel. Certainly DH follows the format of 19th-century serial fiction, with tension-producing twists at the end of episodes and the gradual unfolding of characters' interconnections. Grey's Anatomy, on the other hand, isn't in the thriller/suspense mode -- the first-person narration provides the Bildungsroman framework that makes each episodes events just a lesson for the protagonist's personal growth and development.

I don't watch enough television to know how common the voice-over narrator is -- it seems unusual to me, but perhaps you know of other examples?